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Brad Penny retired last week. Few people noticed. Penny is 37 years old, had not pitched in the majors since 2014 and was in Blue Jays camp on a minor league contract. Among those who should have noticed were the five young starting pitchers with the New York Mets.
Opening Day is 12 days away. Sports Illustrated's Baseball Preview issue is out this week. Parity has made baseball less predictable than ever. But what we do know before almost 2,500 games are played is that these are the three biggest storylines heading into the 2016 season:
1. Can the Cubs win the World Series for the first time in 108 years?
2. How great is the Mets’ rotation?
3. Does a new generation of young sluggers continue the uptick in offense we saw in the second half of last season?
Penny’s retirement renews a cautionary tale that applies to the second question, which is why the Mets should be paying attention.
Before New York's young guns, there were the 2004 Florida Marlins. The 2015 Mets and the ’03 Marlins are among only 15 teams in the free-agent era (since 1976) to reach the World Series by giving 95 or more starts to pitchers who were 27 or younger. Florida had 126 such starts, second only to the 2008 Rays among the past 78 pennant winners. The Marlins won a world championship with Carl Pavano (27), Brad Penny (25), Josh Beckett (23) and Dontrelle Willis (21) in the rotation and with A.J. Burnett (26) rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. All came back in 2004.
“Going into ’04, we felt pretty good about things,” said Larry Beinfest, then the team’s general manager. “We were like, ‘Wow, we have a chance with this young pitching.’”
Penny’s retirement put an official end to the “window” that closed almost as soon as it opened for that team with its core of young starters. He was the last of the five starters to retire. All had lengthy careers, all won between 72 and 162 games, and all earned between $41 million (Willis) and $144 million (Burnett). But the Marlins, even with that core of young pitching, were a one-year wonder.
The 2004 Marlins finished third in the National League East with an 83–79 record. The franchise has not returned to the postseason since that 2003 championship; its 12-year drought is the second-longest active streak in baseball, behind only the 14-year stretch for the Mariners.
Within two years, Pavano, Penny, Beckett and Burnett were gone from Florida, and Willis’s career was about to fall off a cliff.
“It’s hard to grow a good, young staff,” Beinfest said. “You can come a lot quicker in building a team if your starting pitching is in place. But there are no guarantees about the future. It’s hard to keep them healthy, or to afford them all. The odds are actually against you.”
It’s easy for the Mets to dream on a staff of Jacob deGrom (27), Matt Harvey (26), Zack Wheeler (25), Steven Matz (24) and Noah Syndergaard (23). But Beinfest is right: The odds are against them. Of the 14 previous pennant winners built on young starters (again, at least 95 starts from pitchers 27 and younger), 10 of them did not even make the playoffs the next year, a 71% rate of regression (see table at bottom). And there is this usual caveat: Half of all major league starting pitchers go on the DL every year.
It’s easy to make the case that New York's quintet is simply are more talented than that of the Marlins. And the Mets have the benefit of more years of data and scientific evidence to be more proactive about pitchers’ workload and health. But when you compare the 2004 Marlins with the ’16 Mets, you might be surprised how much they actually have in common. If you look at it as re-casting a movie with the same script, these are the roles they would play.
The 23-year-old Flamethrowing Texan
Marlins: Josh Beckett
Josh Beckett had Hall of Fame talent. He was the second pick of the 1999 draft (the Devil Rays took Josh Hamilton No. 1) and made his major league debut at age 21 after only 37 minor league starts.
Before Florida’s last series heading into the 2003 All-Star break, manager Jack McKeon called Beckett into his office. The results weren’t matching his stuff. Beckett was 3–4 with a 3.93 ERA in 10 starts. He was in line to start the Sunday game in Montreal.
“I’m skipping you in your next start, Josh,” McKeon said. “Dontrelle is throwing the ball better than you. He’s going to get the start Sunday.”
Said Beinfest, “I remember that was a turning point. A little thing like that challenged him. Josh’s demeanor and competitiveness were off the charts. He didn’t like Jack giving the ball to someone else who was throwing better.”
After that meeting and through the rest of the season, including the postseason, Beckett was 8–6 with a 2.40 ERA, capped by his World Series-clinching shutout at Yankee Stadium on three days of rest. Bret Saberhagen (1985 Royals) and Johnny Podres ('55 Dodgers) are the only pitchers younger than Beckett to throw a series-clinching shutout.
Back in 2003, nobody gave much thought to Beckett’s increase in innings at age 23. He finished with 184 2/3 innings—a jump of 67 innings, or 57% of his previous workload. Beckett paid the bill in 2004 for all that extra work. His ERA increased by 0.75, most of his other metrics also worsened, and he went on the DL three times that year, twice for a blister problem and once for a lower back injury. He went on to be the ace of the Red Sox' 2007 World Series championship team, make two All-Star teams for Boston and pitch a no-hitter for the Dodgers in '14, his last season.
Mets: Noah Syndergaard
Just like Beckett, Syndergaard pitched in the World Series at age 23 during a season in which he made a nearly identical leap in innings: 65 2/3, or 49% more than his previous high.
2004 Marlins: Dontrelle Willis
Beinfest had been Florida's GM for just 38 days when he swung a trade with the Cubs on March 22, 2002. He at first wanted 21-year-old righthander Carlos Zambrano, who had made his big-league debut the previous August. Chicago said no. Beinfest then turned his attention to a 20-year-old lefthander who had pitched the previous season in short-season A ball. The Cubs said yes. Beinfest traded veteran pitchers Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement to get four players, the key one being Willis.
Beinfest traded for Willis sight unseen. Though it was only 14 years ago, video was not as readily available then as it is now. Beinfest relied solely on the words of his scouts, including area scouts from northern California who had seen Willis as an amateur.
“It was traditional, old school scouting,” Beinfest said. “It was very good old school scouting.”
A few days after the trade, Beinfest got a call in his spring training office that Willis was about to throw his first bullpen session for the Marlins. He hopped in his golf cart and drove to the backfield bullpen area.
“I saw this funky delivery,” Beinfest said. “He turns his back to the plate, spins and throws his first pitch halfway up the screen behind the catcher. I said, ‘Oh, my,’ turned around and left. That was the first time I saw him throw.”
The Marlins sent Willis to Class A, then promoted him to high A ball. He tore through those levels with a 12–2 record and a 1.83 ERA. The next year, 2003, Willis was dominating Double A (4–0, 1.49 ERA in six starts) when Florida reached a breaking point on May 3. That night against Houston, starting pitcher Justin Wayne, a 24-year-old righthander, failed to retire any of the first six batters he faced. The ugliness happened in this order: single, double, walk, walk, hit by pitch, walk.
“The next day I had a meeting and I called [owner Jeffrey] Loria and said, 'Dontrelle will be pitching [Friday] night,'" recalls Beinfest. "Dontrelle was so exciting. What happened with Dontrelle was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
Willis pitched decently that first night, striking out seven in six innings, giving up seven hits and three runs in a no-decision, though the Marlins won after he departed. Manager Jeff Torborg was fired after the game the next night, with Florida stumbling along at 16–22. He was replaced by McKeon, then 72 years old; his first managerial job in the majors had come 30 years earlier.
Beginning in his fourth start—eight innings of shutout ball against Cincinnati on May 25—Willis became a sensation. He won seven straight starts with a 0.91 ERA in that run, earning an All-Star selection. The Marlins began to turn their season around. Willis went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
As with Beckett, nobody paid much attention to his workload. Willis had logged 157 2/3 innings in Class A the previous season. He ended the year with 209 2/3 innings—a jump of 52 innings, or 33% of his previous workload.
“We just didn’t have as much scientific evidence back then about adjusting innings on a year-by-year basis,” Beinfest said.
Like Beckett, Willis regressed in 2004. He made 32 starts, but his ERA rose by nearly a run and his metrics were worse virtually across the board. He rebounded with a 22-win season in '05, but thereafter, plagued by wildness and anxiety issues, went 26–42 with a 5.02 ERA and bounced among 11 organizations.
2016 Mets: Steven Matz
Matz, who turns 25 in May, is four years older coming off his World Series season than Willis was in 2004. He also has a smoother delivery than Willis, who was bedeviled by mechanical issues as he aged out of his youth. But Matz still needs to be watched with a careful eye when it comes to his workload. He threw a career-high 155 2/3 innings last year, less than Willis threw in 2002. The Mets will not want him to exceed about 185 innings this year, postseason included.
The 27-year-old Dark Knight from Connecticut
2004 Marlins: Carl Pavano
Mets fans might cringe at any comparison between Pavano and Harvey, but consider this: In 1997, way before Pavano's career became known for injuries and tabloid punchlines, the Expos considered trading Pedro Martinez and went searching for the best pitching prospect in baseball. The pitcher they wanted was Pavano.
Pavano (Southington) and Harvey (Fitch) are righthanded starters who went to Connecticut high schools 25 miles apart. They have dated starlets. And ... okay, the comparison doesn’t go much further than that.
Harvey was a star as soon as he stepped on a big-league mound; Pavano took years to establish himself. By the start of the 2003 postseason, he had a career record of 39–50 with a 4.59 ERA. But with McKeon using him as a reliever and a starter, Pavano went 2–0 with a 1.40 ERA that October, including eight strong innings (one run, no walks) against Roger Clemens in the Marlins’ extra-inning win in World Series Game 4.
Pavano was the only member of Florida's young staff who improved significantly in 2004. He made his only All-Star team, threw 222 1/3 innings, won 18 games and posted a 3.00 ERA. His timing was impeccable: A free agent after that season, he signed with the Yankees for $39.5 million over four years. Limited by injuries to just 26 starts for New York, he pitched five more seasons with the Indians and Twins, the last in 2012.
2016 Mets: Matt Harvey
As Pavano was with the ’03 Marlins, Harvey is the Mets’ young gun closest to free agency. He's eligible for the open market after the 2018 season, and New York has only a slight chance of getting him to sign a contract extension. Harvey's value today is about $114 million over the next five years, which gives him a 10% premium over the last two arbitration seasons of Stephen Strasburg ($17.8 million) and the first three free-agent years of Max Scherzer ($85.8 million, as calculated for luxury tax purposes). Harvey may want to see what his value is on the free-agent market at age 29 rather than sign an extension that defers free agency to 32. By being New York's starter who is closest to free agency, Harvey is also the one most likely to be traded first.
The Late Bloomer
2004 Marlins: Brad Penny
Neither Penny (fifth round, 1999) nor deGrom (ninth round, 2010) was a high draft pick. Penny had a perfectly decent career: 121–101, an adjusted ERA right around average (99) and earnings of $49 million. He became a big-bodied innings eater, so it’s easy to forget that he once was built like deGrom (6'4" and 190 pounds; deGrom is the same height and weighs 180) and, while starting out in the Diamondbacks' system, he was the best righthanded pitching prospect in baseball. Baseball America ranked him as the fifth-best prospect overall in 1999.
A few months later, Arizona traded him to Florida for reliever Matt Mantei. Penny never developed into a front-of-the rotation pitcher like deGrom. He reached his career peak with back-to-back All-Star years with the Dodgers at ages 28 and 29 in 2006 and '07, seasons in which he went a combined 32–13 with a 3.65 ERA. But his biggest contribution was beating the Yankees twice in the 2003 World Series, making him the only righthander since Bob Gibson in 1964 to win two starts against New York in the same Fall Classic.
The breakup and breakdown of the ’03 Marlins’ staff began with Penny. At the 2004 trade deadline, convinced that he needed to upgrade at catcher (where Mike Redmond had stepped in after Ivan Rodriguez left as a free agent), Beinfest traded Penny, first baseman Hee-seop Choi and pitcher Bill Murphy to the Dodgers for catcher Paul Lo Duca, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and pitcher Guillermo Mota.
“Lo Duca was the big key for us,” Beinfest said. What he likely did not know about were the reports written about Lo Duca by Dodgers officials after the 2003 season. According to the Mitchell Report, the internal memo said:
“Steroids aren’t being used anymore on him. Big part of this. Might have some value to trade … Florida might have interest … Got off steroids … Took away a lot of hard line drives … Can get comparable value back (and) would consider trading … If you do trade him, will get back on the stuff and try to show you he can have a good year. That’s his makeup. Comes to play. Last year of contract, playing for (new contract).”
Lo Duca had been a fringe player until, according to the Mitchell Report, Mets catcher Todd Hundley introduced him to steroid supplier Kirk Radomski. Radomski showed investigators checks Lo Duca wrote him five weeks before his trade to the Marlins and eight days after it.
2016 Mets: Jacob deGrom
Unlike Penny with the ’04 Marlins, deGrom is going nowhere. He is one of the most valuable properties in baseball. The Mets control his rights through the 2020 season, when he will be 32 years old.
I asked Beinfest the question everybody likes to ask baseball people about the Mets’ young arms: “Who do you like the best?”
“It’s hard not to like the power arm of Syndergaard,” Beinfest said, “but I really like deGrom—the way he pitches and the way he competes. I do like the way deGrom controls the game. He takes over at the times when he has to. That’s a skill not all pitchers have.”
The Power Arm Rebuilt by Tommy John Surgery
2004 Marlins: A.J. Burnett
When the Marlins played in the 2003 postseason and as the world discovered their depth of power arms, the general talk was that the guy with the best pure stuff among them wasn’t even on the active roster. Burnett had thrown a no-hitter in 2001, led the majors with five shutouts in '02 and and threw 97 mph, though he did suffer from command and mechanical problems.
Florida rode Burnett hard in 2002. He threw more than 120 pitches 10 times that season—still the most by any 25-or-under pitcher since 2001. Four starts into his 2003 season, Burnett blew out his elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery on May 1 of that year and returned to Florida's rotation 13 months later.
Burnett started poorly when he came back in 2004, going 2–5 with a 4.52 ERA in his first 13 starts. But he was good enough in 2005 (12-2, 3.44 ERA and 8.5 strikeouts per nine) that the Blue Jays signed him to a five-year, $55 million contract. He opted out after three solid seasons, during which he went 38–26 with a 3.94 ERA and 9.0 strikeouts per nine, to sign a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Yankees, helping them win the World Series in his first season in the Bronx.
Burnett, who retired after last season, never received a Cy Young Award vote, made just one All-Star team and posted a career ERA of 3.99—the 16th-worst mark out of the 113 pitchers to make 400 starts or more—but he earned a lucrative career out of taking the ball. Burnett made $144 million in his 17 major league seasons, the most among those 16 workhorses with the highest ERA.
2016 Mets: Zack Wheeler
Wheeler underwent Tommy John surgery on March 25, 2015. The Mets, as well as other clubs, have learned to slow play the recovery process. Wheeler is scheduled to return to the rotation around July 1—15 months after surgery, or two more months than Burnett needed. Like the young Burnett, Wheeler throws in the upper 90s. Here are more similarities between the two:
Following the 2004 season, Beckett and Willis regressed, likely because of their extreme increase in workload at a young age; Penny was traded because the Marlins needed a catcher; Burnett needed three months to shake off post-surgical rust; Pavano had a career year.
So I asked Beinfest: What happened to the 2004 Marlins?
“We just kind of got derailed by hurricanes,” he said. “I know it sounds like some lame excuse, but it happened.”
On Sept. 2, 2004, Florida (70–62) had won seven straight games and was 2 1/2 games behind the Cubs for the wild card. But then Hurricanes Frances and Ivan hit south Florida over the next three weeks. The Marlins were forced to finish the season with 30 games in 27 days, a stretch that included three doubleheaders in 11 days and two “home” games at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.
The team was so short on pitching that it summoned one of its Class A pitchers, Logan Kensing, who hadn’t pitched in two weeks and was at home on his couch in Texas. Kensing made three starts for Florida down the stretch, going 0–3 with a 12.66 ERA in those outings. The Marlins went 13–17 in that 27-day grind, finishing nine games out of the wild card.
Florida kept the core of its team intact and made another run in 2005. Again, the Marlins reached the stretch with a shot at the playoffs, sitting just one-half game out of the wild card with 33 games remaining. But again they faded, going 14–19 to finish five games out of a playoff spot.
That was it for Loria. The team's owner, in the cut-and-run style that has made for what little identity the franchise has, ordered Beinfest to dismantle the club. During that offseason, Beckett and Mike Lowell were traded to Boston, Burnett left as a free agent to Toronto, Lo Duca and first baseman Carlos Delgado were sent to the Mets, second baseman Luis Castillo was dealt to the Twins and outfielder Juan Pierre was shipped to the Cubs. The Marlins' Opening Day payroll dropped from $60 million in 2005 to $15 million in '06.
The franchise never has recovered. In the 10 seasons from 2006 to '15, the Marlins burned through eight managers, lost more games than any team in the National League, and finished last in the NL in attendance every year except 2012, when the curiosity of a new ballpark pushed them all the way to … 12th.
Beinfest was fired in September of 2013. He was replaced by Dan Jennings, who was replaced last year by Mike Hill so that Jennings could become manager, until he was replaced by Don Mattingly five months later. Beinfest has been out of baseball since Loria fired him. He still lives in Florida. As for another job in baseball, Beinfest said he is “open to it” as well as “a couple of things in business.”
He did preside over a world championship team in 2003, his second year on the job. The next decade proved just how tough it is to win, even when sitting on an inventory of young power arms. The next wave of pitchers didn’t pan out; the best arms in the Marlins’ system in 2004—Josh Johnson, Jeff Allison, Taylor Tankersley, Trevor Hutchinson and Scott Olsen—flamed out too quickly.
But, seeing that we are nearing Opening Day, let’s end on a more hopeful note for Mets fans. Let’s consider the best-case scenario: That this is the best young rotation since the greatest of all time—the Braves of the early 1990s. The odds are against them, but maybe these guys really are that good—good enough to get back to the World Series again and win it this time. And so we end with this: the youngest rotations among the past 78 World Series teams, and how they fared the next year. Seven months from now, we’ll know whether the Mets’ young guns look more like those of the Marlins or the Braves.
|Team||Starts||Playoffs next year|
|1991 Braves||124||Lost World Series|
|1986 Red Sox||118||None|
|1992 Braves||117||Lost NLCS|
|2013 Cardinals||109||Lost NLCS|
|2008 Phillies||102||Lost World Series|